For the last few days I've been meaning to write a blog complimenting Riggleman on his bullpen management so far this season. He's been doing a pretty nice job optimizing the performance of his bullpen by finding favorable match-ups, using his best relievers in the highest leverage situations, not just in the 9th inning when the team is up by 3 or fewer runs.
Almost without exception, major league managers follow the same idiotic bullpen 'strategy' of using every reliever for one inning only and using the best reliever in the 9th, the 2nd best in the 8th, and the rest for mop-ups or to patch the 6th and 7th when needed.
The reason this is stupid, if it's not obvious, is that there's nothing unique about pitching in the 7th, 8th, or 9th innings. The mound is the same height. The field is the same shape... this isn't basketball or football where at the end of the game you enter a two-minute drill, requiring a unique skill set.
It would be far smarter for managers to use their relievers to maximize platoon split advantages, or to match up their best reliever with the other team's best hitters--even if the middle of the order is due up in the 7th or 8th. And let your best pitchers throw more than one inning once if they're cruising along nicely.
You would think at least that managers would understand that it's best to have the best pitchers throw the most innings--but even that has eluded them. Look at the list of pitchers who threw the most relief innings last year. Are these the best relievers in the league? Matt Belisle (92 IP)? Tyler Clippard (91)? Tony Pena (81.2)? You gotta go pretty far down the list to find guys like Mariano Rivera (60), Health Bell (70), and Joakim Soria (65.2). What possible rationale could managers have for consciously deciding to give more innings to inferior pitchers?
(I'll pause now to allow you to make the case for the "closer mentality," and why only a select few relievers with the special closer mentality gene can successfully pitch in the 9th inning of games with a 3-run lead. Ok, are you done talking? Great. You're wrong. Let's move on.)
Riggleman seemed like an unlikely candidate to break out of this pernicious trend. But alas that's exactly what's been happening in the early going of the season. He's used Clippard, arguably the best pitcher in the bullpen, to put out fires in the middle innings. He's spotted Drew Storen against right-handers. And while Burnett has gotten the only two save opportunities, it has seemed more dictated by match-ups than a commitment to Burnett as "my 9th inning guy."
OK, but then, just when we think maybe our little blind squirrel found a nut, we get this from Ben Goessling today:
Riggleman said the Nationals will continue to pick their relievers early in the season based on matchups, though Burnett has saved both of the Nationals' wins and has finished all four games he's pitched. Had the Nationals taken the lead in the ninth inning of last night's 11-inning win against the Marlins, Riggleman said he would have stuck with Drew Storen for the bottom of the ninth instead of using Burnett in a save situation, adding he'd still lean toward Storen if the ninth inning meant a run of right-handed hitters.
Eventually, the Nationals would like to have relievers assigned to the last three innings of the game - Clippard in the seventh, Storen in the eighth and Burnett in the ninth, for example. That would cut down on the double switches that occasionally sap the Nationals' bench, but more than that, it would have each of Washington's three best relievers knowing what to expect."I always use San Diego as an example - backwards, 9-8-7, (they have Heath) Bell, (Mike) Adams, (Luke) Gregerson," Riggleman said. "(We want to) just turn an inning over to one of those guys - whether it's Clippard or (Todd) Coffey, Storen or Clippard, Burnett or Storen, turn it over to them so we don't have to be doing the double switching, have somebody finish an inning and make sure he can pitch the next one. We don't want to be doing that."
OK, you can shoot me now.